The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture has as its declared goal 'contributing to sustainable food security for small-scale farmers'. Syngenta - a merger incorporating Novartis -is the world's largest biotechnology company and Syngenta directors occupy 3 of the 5 seats on the Syngenta Foundation's board. Heinz Imhof, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Syngenta is President of the Syngenta Foundation. Its Executive Director is Andrew Bennet .
The Syngenta Foundation says it aims to provide genetically modified maize varieties for use by resource poor farmers in the context of efficacy and environmental and socio economic effects. However, according to a report by Aaron deGrassi of the Institute of Development Studies, the Syngenta Foundation's activities have more to do with PR than with delivering real benefits to poor farmers.
He writes, 'The Syngenta Foundation - has a poor record of supporting client-driven public agricultural research institutes, as illustrated by the Cinzana research station in Mali. The extent of damage by stem borers was repeatedly over-estimated based on ad hoc guesses. No rigorous assessments were done before the project was started of the extent of damage by stem borers, nor of whether farmers felt they were a significant problem. When the project did survey 30 villages throughout the country, none identified stem borers as the most pressing constraint upon maize production... project surveys found that many farmers were already using their own resistant varieties.'
The Foundation's main project has been Insect Resistant Maize for Africa - IRMA. Its showcase project is based in Kenya. Scientists have genetically engineered several maize varieties to protect against 3 types of stem borers. However, they have yet to engineer protection against the most important stem borer in Kenya, which affects 80% of the country's maize crop. In any case, deGrassi reports, stem borers are a relatively insignificant contributing factor to poverty in these areas. Of greater importance are other agronomic constraints - such as 'droughts, low soil fertility, and the weed Stiga - as well as other socio-economic and political constraints - such as corruption, HIV/AIDS, poor transport, unequal land tenure, and political repression.'
Moreover, other less generously funded projects have used a range of techniques that have already proved capable of protecting against stem borers in farmers fields. Some of these methods, which have been shown to reduce borers to negligible levels, have been tested in farmers' fields and are already being adopted.
These methods, unlike the use of the genetically engineered (Bt)maize, do not face the likelihood of evolved pest resistance.
DeGrassi's over all conclusion on the Syngenta Foundation project, and others like it, is that 'while genetic modification may constitute a novel tool, in Africa it is a relatively ineffective and expensive one. Cash-strapped scientists working with poor farmers in Africa might well regard genetic modification as a waste of time and money. The evidence assembled here supports the view of a South African commentator: "There are better ways to feed Africa than GM crops." '